Chapter 16

Survival of the Richest: The Industrial Revolution

In This Chapter

● Advances in farming procedures

● Waterproof roads and bridges for boats

● Industrialising the cloth industry

● Life and work in the factories

● The British sweet tooth and the Africa slave trade

People like learning about Kings and Queens, and, with a bit of luck, you can win them over to finding out about politicians and revolutionaries, but mention the invention of the Spinning Jenny and their eyes start to glaze over. Follow it up with the Water Frame and Crompton’s Mule, and then throw in the factory system and the principles of steam power and - well, you’re already thinking about skipping this chapter aren’t you?

Yet this chapter includes things like child labour and the exploitation of the poor and helpless, famine and cruelty, breathtaking beauty and elegance - yes, I am talking aqueducts here - and remarkable inventiveness and enterprise. In short, my friends, this chapter is about how the British created the Modern World in all its glory and splendour, and misery, squalor and vice. It’s about wealth beyond dreams and poverty beyond nightmares. It’s about how a land was transformed and a people was created. And yes, it’s also about the spinning jenny.

Food or Famine?

In the end, kings and generals don’t matter much. What matters are things like food and clothing. The story of how Britain became the first industrial superpower in history begins with these basics. In the eighteenth century attempts were made in England to get a bit more food on the market.

Problem: Fertiliser; Answer: Turnip

The first problem was fertiliser, and in those days, that meant animal dung. Traditional English farming techniques involved leaving fields empty or fallow for a year. In the eighteenth century Dutch experts introduced a more efficient technique. It was called crop rotation, and it was all based on turnips. Here’s how it worked:

Year 1: Get the wheat harvest in.

Year 2: Plant turnips; pull up turnips; feed turnips to sheep, pigs, and children; swear never to look at another turnip.

Year 3: Sow barley, clover, and grass in the same field. The barley grows; you harvest it. The grass and clover grow up through the barley stubble; you let your cattle and sheep in to eat the grass and clover. They poop all over the field, thus fertilising it.

Year 4: Back to Year 1.

A former Foreign Secretary, now retired, called Viscount Townshend introduced crop rotation on his estate (and got nicknamed “Turnip Townshend” for his pains), and he spread the word, which helped it catch on. What also helped was a new machine for planting seeds properly instead of just throwing them around and hoping. This machine was invented by Jethro Tull, and if you listen carefully, you can just hear him shouting out “No, not the 70’s rock band!” from his grave.

The luck of the English

In one sense, the English were better-off than the Scots or Irish, because they didn't really have any peasants, people who are effectively tied to the land and can't move elsewhere. In England, most of the people in the countryside were tenant farmers or labourers, who sold their services each year at what were called hiring fairs (because people got hired there).

The English also had all those rather lovely country estates you can visit at weekends but which in those days had English nobles sitting in them who, rather unusually, actually took an interest in farming. While Marie Antoinette was playing shepherdesses in Versailles, George III had a proper experimental farm on the royal estate at Windsor.

Baa baa black sheep, that's a lot of wool

Seventeenth century animals were all bone and very little meat. So the English, being an inquisitive lot, started dabbling in genetic engineering.

Or selective breeding, as they called it. The big name in the field was Robert Bakewell, who found that if you chose your sheep carefully, you could end up with massive sheep. Monster sheep. He called them New Leicesters and they were fat.

With selective breeding, ordinary horses now became giant shire horses, great equine monsters who could pull huge cartloads of turnips (sorry, kids). Even better were the huge pigs and cows the English started to breed, because you could eat them. These animals became superstars. People came from all over Europe to marvel at them.

Reaching (en)closure

All these great farming ideas would only work if you had a nice big farm. But most farmers didn’t have nice big farms. They had bits of different land spread across all the different fields in the village. So if you wanted to get anywhere with agricultural improvements, you were having to go and rearrange who had which land. What we’re talking about here is enclosures, and basically this is how it happened:

Step 1: A group of local landowners got Parliament to pass a local Enclosure Act saying they can start juggling around with their neighbours’ property.

Step 2: Parliament sent down two-or three-man commissions to check who owned what, and they wanted written proof. No paper; no land.

Step 3: The commissioners drew a big map giving all the best land to the local bigwigs; smallholder families who had been farming for generations lost their lands and were forced to become hired labourers.

Step 4: The big landowners put up lots of fences and hedges round their new lands with signs like “Keep Out” and “Trespassers Will be Hanged at the Next Assizes” to keep the neighbours out.

You can look at this as blatant robbery by the landowning classes. And that’s how it appeared at the time to many of the people forced from their land. On the other hand, Britain had to go through this if it was going to produce enough food to feed the people in those growing industrial cities. Without enclosures, it’s hard to see how Britain’s industrial revolution could have happened, and many people would probably have had to go very, hungry. It’s a classic case of balancing the individual against the common good. Just be glad you’re not the individual.

Clearing the Highlands

The worst example of clearing the land was in Scotland. Scottish clan chiefs, or lairds, decided that the Highlands would look even better without Highlanders so they started evicting them by force. The worst examples were the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, who added insult to injury by forcing their few remaining tenants to put up a huge statue to the Duke in "gratitude". (The lairds wanted the land partly for sheep and partly for grouse shooting).

The Highlanders had to move out to tiny crofts crowded along the coast, which were virtually impossible to farm. The only thing left for many of them was to get on a ship and leave Scotland for good. Which is how you come to have so many Scottish communities around the world, in Canada and Australia and South Africa and the States. They reckon that there are more "Scots" outside Scotland than there are in it.

The forced evictions were so successful that hardly any trace of Highland settlements has survived. What happened in Scotland has been compared to ethnic cleansing, and with reason, except that this was done by the Highlanders' own clan chiefs. So next time you admire the empty beauty of the Highlands, remember that its beauty was bought with cruelty, injustice, and violence. And ask yourself why it's so empty.

Getting Things Moving: Road Work

In the eighteenth century, English roads were so bad you could hardly get anywhere. If you did find a bit of highway the chances are that you found a bit of highway robbery, too. Although we like to think of highwaymen as romantic Dick Turpin types, the reality was very different. I don’t suppose you like the idea of someone pulling a gun on you and taking your wallet and cards, and people in the eighteenth century didn’t like it either.

Sometimes, villages clubbed together to pay for road mending and then got the money back by charging tolls; you paid the toll at a tollhouse with a spiked gate, called a turnpike, which discouraged horses from jumping it. Turnpike roads were better than most roads of the time, but we’re not exactly talking Route 66 here.

If you think building a road is just a question of clearing a path through the grass think again. Apart from anything, you need to work out how to drain the thing, otherwise, you’ll be driving through a quagmire the first time it rains. A Scot, John Loudon Macadam solved the problem. He worked out how to use a layer of small stones on the top to allow the water through. He also decided that the best way to waterproof the roads was a coating of tar - they called it “tarmacadam” or tarmac in his honour. Macadam’s fellow Scot Thomas Telford built so many miles of beautifully straight roads and canals that they nicknamed him the “Colossus of Roads”. Geddit? Go and see his elegant Menai Bridge linking North Wales with the Isle of Anglesey: It’s a masterpiece.

Trouble Over: Bridged Water

Francis Egerton, fifth Duke of Bridgewater, was a rich man hoping to get richer. The Duke had coal by the bucket load on his estate at Worsley, and folks wanted it down in Manchester and Salford. The question was how to get it there? The Duke decided on a canal, so he got in an engineer called James Brindley to build it. The Duke had been thinking in terms of a fairly short canal down to the river, but he and Brindley quickly decided to go for something rather bigger: A canal all the way from Worsley to Manchester, which could link up with another canal Brindley was working on between the Trent and the Mersey. And that could connect up with more and more canals until the whole country was covered in canals!!

The problem with this plan? A river was in the way. A canal can’t cross a river, now can it? But a canal can cross a river if you build an aqueduct.

Which just happened to be Brindley’s speciality. The aqueduct (oh all right, strictly speaking it’s a viaduct) was beautiful, and the sight of a boat crossing the River Irwell at Barton Bridge was the must-see of the age.

Revolutionising the Cloth Trade

Go into any house in eighteenth century England, even a very poor one, and you would almost certainly see a big loom taking up most of the space. That was where the man of the household sat down to work when he came in from the fields. Then there would be a spinning wheel, where his wife would turn raw wool into thread for the big loom. This cottage industry as they called it made some very useful extra income for the family, and it was well worth the effort, because English cloth was good. And then all those inventors came along and changed it all.

See the big beautiful churches of East Anglia. All paid for by wool (which is why they are still called cloth or wool churches to this day). Think of the big city companies in London, like the Mercers or the Merchant Taylors. Think of Harris Tweed or Saville Row or posh English gentlemen talking about their tailors and you’ve got a handle on just how big the cloth trade always has been for the English. The Chancellor of England took his seat in the House of Lords on a big sack stuffed with wool, still called the Woolsack, a symbol of what had made the country rich.

The spinning jenny has landed

You could be forgiven for thinking that you could hardly bung a brick in the eighteenth century without hitting some clever inventor just itching to come up with a new machine for making more and more cloth and making it faster, like these people who saw particular problems and solved them:

Problem 1: Weaving is a laborious business, and you can’t get cloth wider than a man’s arms, because otherwise he can’t reach to weave it.

“I know!” says one John Kay, “why not have a special gadget to move the warp for you? And faster too?” Good idea. He calls it the Flying Shuttle.

● Problem 2: Flying Shuttles go too fast, unfair to women, who do all the spinning. “How can we possibly keep up?” the women, who do all the spinning, complain to their husbands: “and another thing: you never take me out . . .” The sheep aren’t too pleased either. “I know!” says a weaver called James Hargreaves. “Why not have a spinning wheel that spins more than one thread?” - a solution so simple, you wonder why no-one had thought of it before. His model, called the spinning jenny, could spin 8 threads off one wheel, and by the time he died, people were using them to spin 80. (It would be nice to say that he called it the spinning jenny after his daughter, but it’s probably not true. Jenny or ginny was just a shortened form of engine, which was what people in Lancashire called machines in them days.)

● Problem 3: The thread the spinning jennies make isn’t very strong - nowhere near strong enough for warp. “I know!” says a canny Lancashire wig-maker called Richard Arkwright. “We’ll have a machine that can both spin the threads and spin them together to make a tougher thread.” The machine he built was too big to work by hand, so Arkwright decided to power the machine, which he called the water frame, by water. And this idea led to Problem 4.

● Problem 4: Arkwright’s water frame had to be by a river but people still worked from their homes. And that was when Arkwright had his big idea, the one he should be remembered for but usually isn’t: Bring the workers to the frame. He called this idea of working a factory and it made Arkwright’s name - he even got a knighthood out of it - and his fortune. (Next time you get stuck in rush hour traffic on your way to or from work, think of Arkwright and give him his due.)

Just because a machine was invented didn’t mean that suddenly it was being used all over the country within the week. Most of these machines took a long time to get taken up, and not all of them even got patented. For the most part they were used in one or two places and only gradually began to catch on as other people in the trade noticed that one mill or factory seemed to be producing a lot more cloth than normal. Even then, the way in which they spread was very patchy, so you get a fully working factory system in one area and hand-loom weavers still working away in another. Later on, historians would look at all this and call it an Industrial Revolution. At the time, however, whether this revolution impacted you directly depended very much on where you lived.

Things speed up even more

Rather like the waterwheel, which carried on turning as long as the current flowed, Arkwright had started a process that couldn’t be stopped. A fiddler called Samuel Crompton worked out an even better spinning machine, with some bits from the spinning jenny and some bits from the water frame. He called his machine a mule - which was the last little joke he made. The mule was so good that everyone ripped off the idea, and Crompton spent years in legal battles trying to prove he had thought of it first.

With all this speed-spinning going on, someone was going to have to come up with a way of speed-weaving. That someone was a clergyman called Edmund Cartwright. Once weaving could keep pace with spinning, you were away.

And how did the Mr Cartwright do it? He used steam, which created other opportunities and problems.

It’s (Not So) Fine Work, If You Can Get It: Life in the Factories

The point about using steam to power the machines was that now your factory no longer needed to be next to a river: You could build it anywhere, which in effect meant in the middle of a town. Or, more accurately, you built your factory and a town sprang up around it. With a steam engine, you also didn’t need to switch off at night; you could keep going 24 hours a day (not 24/7 because you needed to give everyone time off on Sundays), working in shifts. The workers had to live with a factory hooter and a factory clock telling them when to get up and when to go home and generally regulating their lives in much the same way that the Church had done in medieval times. Except that it was a very different sort of life.

Trouble at t'mill

Like the young scientist in the old Alec Guinness film who invents an indestructible fibre for making cloth but discovers, to his dismay, that other people aren’t as excited by his idea, the inventors of the eighteenth century had to deal with the, shall we say, less that supportive reactions of others.

Some people were just jealous of the new inventions, like those who attacked James Hargreaves and smashed his stock of jennies. But jealousy soon gave way to sheer anger when people realised that all these machines were going to put them out of work. Hand-loom weavers hated Crompton and his wretched mule, for example, and in 1790, they attacked his factory and torched the place. Yet more and more factories began installing mules, and more hand-loom weavers were thrown out of work.

By the 1810s, it was the turn of the croppers - skilled workers who produced the fine finish on the cloth. When a new machine appeared to do their work for them, the men met in secret to plan attacks on the factories, and they became known as Luddites - we don’t really know why, though it may have been after someone called Ned Ludd who is supposed to have broken a weaving frame. It’s hard not to sympathise with the Luddites - haven’t you ever wanted to smash up a computer? - but they were never going to stop the spread of Arkwright’s factory system. Which was a shame, because the system had developed in ways no-one, least of all Arkwright, had predicted. (Given their violent tendencies towards machinery, I suppose you could call the Luddites a splinter group).

It were grim in them days

Some of these factory owners became a bit like medieval barons, controlling their workers’ lives just as a lord of the manor had controlled the lives of his serfs. The factory owner built the workers’ houses, which were cheap and cramped, with no sanitation. Workers used a factory shop, where they paid with tokens provided by the factory. Children worked in the factory, crawling in and out beneath the moving machinery. If you tried to set up a trade union you’d be out of a job. And if you went on strike, what would you live on? There was no strike pay, and no unemployment benefit either.

The workers earned a tiny wage, just enough to pay for a small terraced house which might be ankle deep in filth. These towns had no sewers and no running water - they were just asking for disease, and they got it. This was the underside of all those beautiful artefacts which you can find in antique shops and bric-a-brac stalls today.

New Lanark: New Labour?

Robert Owen was a Welshman and a factory owner who, in 1800, tried out an experiment at his mill at New Lanark in Scotland. Owen provided his workers with decent houses, schools, and shops, and he set reasonable working hours. To his competitors' surprise, New Lanark made a handsome profit. Owen was demonstrating

that people work better if you treat them properly. Owen hoped he was starting a new trend, especially when other manufacturers made a beeline for New Lanark to find out how he did it. They were always very impressed, but no-one really took up his ideas.

All those inventions had created two new classes of people, the factory owners and the factory workers, and the workers were discovering just how powerful the owners really were. And there seemed nothing they could do about it.

All Steamed Up

James Watt did not - repeat not - invent the steam engine. Nor did he ever claim that he had. A Cornishman called Savery designed the first steam pump back in 1698, but you took your life in your hands if you used it because there was no safety valve. Then another Cornishman called Thomas Newcomen decided he could improve on Savery’s pump, which he did. Figure 16-1 shows you how Newcomen’s engine worked.

James Watt comes into the story in 1763 when he was working as an instrument maker at Glasgow University. Someone brought him a broken model of Newcomen’s steam pump and asked if he could fix it. Watt had a look at the thing and thought “Ping!! I know what this wee fellow needs.”

Basically what Watt recognised was that the Newcomen engine was inefficient because the piston was moved by first heating and then cooling the single cylinder.

Figure 16-1: Newcomen’s steam engine.

What this thing needs, thought Watt, was a separate condenser, which would let the steam out of the hot cylinder to cool somewhere else.

Watt’s engine made the steam engine faster, more efficient, more reliable, and more economical to run. It created a demand for coal, which in turn created an entire new deep-shaft mining industry. It stimulated a demand for high quality iron, and thus stimulated that industry, too. It became efficient enough to be used for powering vehicles to run on metal rails, thus inaugurating the Age of Steam and leading eventually to fully grown men keeping model train sets on large layouts in their attics.

Do the Locomotion

James Watt did very well marketing his steam pumping engines with his partner, Matthew Boulton. It didn’t take very long before someone looked at these highly efficient - and very expensive - Boulton and Watt pumping machines and applied them to locomotion. In 1814 William Hedley came up with a locomotive for pulling coal wagons. He called it Puffing Billy, and a great ungainly monster it was too. But it worked.

In 1825 George Stephenson designed the world’s first proper railway locomotive, the Locomotion. It ran on the world’s first proper railway line, from Stockton to Darlington, and on its maiden journey it reached 15 mph - bear in mind that a galloping horse might hit six or seven if it’s lucky and not too tired.

In 1829 the Directors of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway offered a £500 prize for the fastest engine, which turned out to be another Stephenson, product, Robert Stephenson’s (son of George) Rocket. Tragically, the day of the trials was marred by the world’s first railway accident. A leading politician, William Huskisson MP, misjudged the Rocket's speed (not his fault: nothing had ever travelled at that sort of speed before), hesitated - and was lost. Or rather, crushed and mangled. Nasty.

Note to purists: Actually, the first steam engine to run on rails was called Catch Me Who Can, and it was built by Richard Trevithick, a Cornish wrestler. But it only ran on a circular track as a fairground attraction, and in any case the track kept breaking, so it never came to anything.

Any Old Iron?

One thing, they say, leads to another, and never was this more true than with all these inventions. Mules and jennies and steam engines and railway tracks and boilers and condensers and so on - all had to be made out of metal. Which, for the most part, meant iron. Smelting iron in those days involved heating it on a slow charcoal fire in the middle of a forest. Hopeless. Until a remarkable family came along, mad keen on iron - and every one of them called Abraham Darby.

Beauty and the beastliness

The Industrial Revolution wasn't all grimy factories and smoky chimneys; it was also a story of craftsmanship and beauty. Skilled Sheffield cutlers known as little mesters were working in small workshops producing fine cutlery long after Henry Bessemer produced his famous converter for turning iron into steel. In the pottery towns of Staffordshire, which became known as the Black Country because of all the grime and soot, Josiah Wedgwood based his designs on those of the ancient Greeks and Romans - beautifully elegant designs, with simple figures against a rich blue background. Wedgwood called his potteries Etruria after the area of ancient Italy which produced some of the finest pieces he was imitating. He virtually invented the modern science of marketing and advertising in order to sell his wares to fashionable people down in London, and it made him a lot of money. Pots of money, you could say!

Granddad Abraham worked out how to get sheet iron from a very pure form of coal called coke instead of charcoal. Abraham No.2 found a way of refining the coke so you can get wrought iron. Abraham No.3 used this new wrought iron to create the world’s first iron bridge. It’s still there, over the River Severn as beautiful and elegant as the day Abraham Darby III opened it.

Tea, Sympathy, and the Slave Trade

The British, like other Europeans, developed a sweet tooth in the eighteenth century, and the people who could supply the country with sugar stood to make a fortune. The sugar was harvested in the Caribbean, which is why the British were so keen to get hold of West Indian islands during the long wars with France (see Chapter 15 for more about these wars and why they went on for so long). The harvesting was done by slaves.

The slave trade was called a triangular trade, because it consisted of three legs:

Shoddy quality trade goods were shipped from Britain to Africa and exchanged for slaves.

The slaves were packed into slave ships and carried from Africa to the West Indies.

The slaves were sold and the money used to buy sugar. This sugar was then shipped back to Britain. On the ships, the slaves were crammed into lower decks sometimes so close together that they could only lie on their sides. They were chained together, and only let out for exercise in small groups. This exercise usually consisted of leaping out of the way of a whip aimed at their feet. On the bunks they had to eat and soil themselves where they lay, so that many died of disease. It’s no wonder that some preferred to leap overboard, while in some cases the slaves rose up and tried to take over the ship.

But most had to live through the horrors of the middle passage as best they could until they reached the slave markets of Barbados. Here they were sold to the highest bidder and put to work on the hot and back-breaking work of cutting sugar cane so that the British would have something to put in their tea. The money from the slave-and-sugar trade - and there was a lot of it - was often invested in the very industries which produced the goods that paid for the next shipload of slaves. So the triangle came full circle.

Britons never shall be slaves - and nor will anyone else

Most people in Britain did not think much about the slave trade one way or the other, but there were exceptions, and one of them was a music critic called Granville Sharp. In 1771, he boarded a ship in London armed with a writ of habeas corpus and demanded the release of a black slave called James Somerset. James’ owner, a Mr Stewart of Boston Mass., protested and the case went up to the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield. Mansfield wasn’t usually particularly liberal, but on this occasion he comes to a remarkable and momentous decision. He frees James Somerset on the grounds that the air of England is so pure that no-one may breathe it and remain a slave. In other words, slavery is, in effect, illegal in England, and any slave who sets foot in England is, by definition, free.

Despite Lord Mansfield’s judgement it took until 1806 to overcome the planters’ resistance and get the slave trade abolished, and even then, slavery itself remained legal in British colonies until 1833. Nevertheless, the British did take a leading role in outlawing the international slave trade: They forced other countries to abolish it after the Napoleonic Wars, and the Royal Navy spent much of the nineteenth century patrolling the African coast hunting down slavers.

Fighting slavery

It's important to remember that slaves did fight against slavery themselves - there were risings on slave ships and black speakers against the slave trade. But fighting the institution of slavery was obviously a lot easier for whites. One of the earliest voices against the slave trade was the seventeenth century woman writer, Aphra Behn in her novel Oroonoko. Later the Quakers and evangelicals took up the issue. One of the most remarkable campaigners was a clergyman called John Newton: He had been a slave ship captain himself, so he knew what he was talking about. But in the end only Parliament could abolish the slave trade. William Wilberforce, MP for Hull, an evangelical Christian and good friend of the Prime Minister, William Pitt, spent his life bringing forward bills against the slave trade, and he just lived long enough to see slavery outlawed in the whole British Empire in 1833.

Why Britain?

No-one around at the time talked of an “Industrial Revolution”, but people did have a sense that things were changing and changing fast. Artists painted pictures of the new industrial towns and of the new types of people to be found there, like anthropologists stumbling on a new tribe. And there was no denying that all of this industrial activity was making certain parts of the country, and certain people, extremely rich. Everyone bought British, even Napoleon. When he invaded Russia his soldiers’ coats were made in England. But what was so special about Britain?

Being an island helped. There were no foreign armies marching all over the place, which is always bad for business, and having lots of rivers and ports - and canals - meant getting all these manufactured goods out to the people who wanted to buy them was easy. There was lots of iron and coal around as well. It also helped that all those lords and nobles didn’t mind mucking in and getting their hands dirty. But whatever the reason, the Industrial Revolution started in Britain, and Britain - and the world - would never be the same again.

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